Israel Returns to Basics in Syria: “Better the devil you know”

Photo of Israeli troops patrolling the Golan Heights

After nearly seven years of unrest in Syria, Israel’s policy toward its next-door neighbor is coming full circle and the repeated idiom of “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know” has officially materialized. Israel opted to coexist with the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria and to return to the established stability in the occupied Golan Heights, which has continued for over four decades. This time, however, Israel is enforcing its own rules of engagement and Russia is replacing the United States as the guarantor to keep Iran and its proxies away from southwestern Syria.

Three Phases of Israel’s Approach to the Syrian War

Israel has remained a bystander in the Syrian civil war, stepping in occasionally to preserve its interests and draw its own red lines. In September 2013, then-Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon summarized Israel’s policy by noting that his government will stay out of the conflict “unless the red lines we’ve set down are transgressed.” These red lines comprise advanced Iranian weaponry transfers to Hezbollah, the Syrian conflict’s spillover into Israel, and Iran’s capacity to build infrastructure for military operations near the occupied Golan Heights.

Israeli policy in Syria has gone through three phases since 2011. The first, a passive approach in 2011-2012, was characterized by monitoring developments unfold in Syria without intervening with missile airstrikes. This posture was partly due to policy differences between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who wanted an ambiguous approach, and then-Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who pushed for calling on Assad to resign. Ultimately, Netanyahu prevailed and Lieberman’s views, currently defense minister, have shifted to accepting “some kind of relationship” with Damascus.

While the Russian-Israeli coordination might provide short-term benefits, it can only lead to a fragile status quo in the long term if the United States and Iran do not fully endorse this process.

In January 2013, Israeli warplanes hit targets inside Syria for the first time during the Syrian war, striking a convoy allegedly transferring antiaircraft weaponry to Hezbollah on the outskirts of Damascus. This strike signaled the beginning of the second phase of Israeli policy that lasted from 2013 to 2016. It was marked by a tacit US-Iranian understanding to defeat the so-called Islamic State (IS) in Syria, an approach that bewildered Israeli policymakers. During this phase, Israel began to set its new rules of engagement in Syria and weigh its options regarding an alternative to the Assad regime. In February 2013, the Israeli army officially began the “good neighbor” program in Syria by coordinating aid delivery and treating injured individuals. The Israeli objective was to have open channels in case the Syrian rebels’ control of southwestern Syria was consolidated. Despite reports that Israel had provided secret aid to Syrian rebels and expanded involvement with them, Israel’s official stance was to deny any intervention in the Syrian war, in order to keep its policy options open. The weakness of the Syrian regime after losing southwestern Syria to the rebels in 2013 shifted Israel’s mindset to prefer a truce with IS rather than the uncertainty of having Iran in its backyard. The Israeli concern at that time was that Hezbollah’s presence had expanded over its two border areas with Syria and Lebanon. Israel began to aggressively target senior Hezbollah commanders as well as those among Iran’s Revolutionary Guards operating in Syria.

After the Russian intervention in Syria in September 2015, Israel gradually turned to Moscow instead of the United States for all matters related to Syria. This triggered the transition to the 2016-2018 period, or the third phase, of Israel’s policy in Syria as the war began to tilt toward the Syrian regime. Russia ignored Israeli strikes in Syria as long as they did not hit Russian assets or undermine the Syrian regime. During this period, Israel had reservations about establishing a “no-fly zone” and about the July 2017 US-Russian ceasefire agreement in southwestern Syria. The underlying objection was that Israel did not want restrictions on its activities there, and since then, has decided to go it alone in a deal with Russia. In October 2017, Lieberman had invited US involvement on Israel’s side in the Syrian war and warned that the Syrian regime was winning: “I see a long queue lining up to woo Assad, include [sic] Western nations, including moderate Sunnis.”

The Post-Syrian-War Israeli Approach

In regaining control of southwestern Syria with Israeli consent last July, the Syrian regime restored the pre-2011 status quo with two major new provisions: Russia replaced the United States as a guarantor of the 1974 ceasefire line in the Golan, and Israel gained an unrestrained advantage of striking inside Syria whenever it perceived an emerging threat.

Russian-Israeli coordination on Syria has reached unprecedented levels in 2018 despite the disagreements of 2017, when Israel did not pre-notify Russia about its strike on a Syrian military airport near Homs. Part of their evolving complicity since that time was Russia’s decision in May to back off on providing the Syrian regime with S-300 ground-to-air missiles, which assured Israel’s aerial military advantage in Syria. Moreover, Moscow’s recent policy approach toward Tehran led to a crack in the alliance between the two, to Israel’s satisfaction. The first signal of a Russian-Israeli deal on Syria came from Lieberman on June 15, who publicly acknowledged for the first time that there are no Iranian or Hezbollah forces in southwestern Syria, which was followed by the Syrian regime operation to control the area. Netanyahu noted on July 12, before his third trip to Moscow in 2018, that “we haven’t had a problem with the Assad regime, for 40 years not a single bullet was fired on the Golan Heights.” On August 7, Lieberman also remarked that the Syrian regime is building up ground forces beyond their pre-civil war size, which seems like an acknowledgment that these government forces are in control of the border area.

Israeli policy on the Golan Heights has not been accommodating and could trigger tensions in the long term.

However, a permanent deal is yet to be reached for southwestern Syria. The failed July 16 Helsinki summit between President Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, regarding Syria poured cold water on Russia-Israel coordination. One week later, on July 23, Netanyahu rejected a Russian plan to withdraw Iranian-backed groups 100 kilometers away from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, instead of the 85 kilometers previously discussed. Moreover, there is pressure from Trump’s Republican allies in the US Congress not to endorse the Israeli-Russian coordination in Syria. US Senator Lindsey Graham publicly warned Israel on July 11 that agreements with Russia impact US interests. “I don’t trust Russia to police Iran or anyone else in Syria. U.S. must maintain presence in Syria to ensure ISIS doesn’t come back and to counter Russia/Iran influence,” he tweeted.

While the Russian-Israeli coordination might provide short-term benefits, it can only lead to a fragile status quo in the long term if the United States and Iran do not fully endorse this process. Iran is arguing that it will withdraw from Syria only if Damascus demands it. The plan to trade US withdrawal from al-Tanf military base for Iranian withdrawal from southwestern Syria have failed. White House National Security Advisor John Bolton affirmed last month that US troops would stay in Syria until IS is “removed and as long as the Iranian menace continues throughout the Middle East.” Washington seems to be interested in getting a higher political price for its withdrawal from al-Tanf, a strategic area on the intersection of the Iraqi-Jordanian-Syrian border. Curtailing Israeli intervention can be successful only with a clear US-Russian agreement in Syria, which is unlikely considering the tense relations between the two countries over Russia’s alleged intervention in the 2016 US presidential election.

The Problematic Golan Heights

At the Helsinki summit, Putin spoke about compliance with the 1974 disengagement agreement between Israel and Syria and how “[T]his will bring peace” to the Golan Heights and “a more peaceful relationship between Syria and Israel.” Trump alluded that the United States and Russia should work together to secure Israeli interests in Syria, but this has not yet materialized. Russia’s announcement on August 1 that Iranian-backed groups withdrew from southwestern Syria was not fully embraced in Israel, whose position required no less than full Iranian withdrawal from Syria. One day later, on August 2, the Russian military police began patrolling the Syrian side of the Golan Heights along with UN peacekeepers, who had been inactive in this area since 2012. Eight observation posts are planned, in coordination with Israel, to enforce disengagement between the two sides.

However, Israeli policy on the Golan Heights has not been accommodating and could trigger tensions in the long term. Responding to reports that his government held secret talks with Damascus between 2009 and 2011 and was willing to give up the Golan Heights, Netanyahu affirmed last June: “Our commitment has been—and still is—keeping the Golan. We won’t give up the Golan.” Meanwhile, the Iranian parliament’s director general for international affairs, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, tweeted on July 29 that the Syrian regime’s control of Quneitra province “means that the liberation of the occupied Golan Heights is possible with Syrians’ efforts.”

What remains an open question is how long Russia can give a green light for both Israel and Iran to remain active in Syria without clashing with one another.

Israel is playing its cards to secure the area. In addition to Russian military police on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights, the Israeli army sent additional tanks and artillery to the Israeli-occupied side of the Golan Heights in July to reinforce the 210th Bashan Division, which guards the Golan. In April, US satellites, surveillance aircraft, drones, and ships stepped up their operations to monitor the movement of suspected Iranian anti-aircraft and ballistic missiles inside Syria. Russia’s cover of Israel’s swift strikes inside Syria is making it difficult for Iran to operate in Syria freely and has altered Tehran’s calculations in the Golan Heights. An Iranian-backed operation against Israel in this area could potentially lead to a region-wide confrontation given the current regional dynamics.

Israel’s Coexistence with the Assad Regime

Israel’s endorsement of the Assad regime is not merely because there is no viable alternative; it was the only policy option left as the tide had been turning toward the Syrian regime since 2017. Israel always faced two choices: retaining some version of the status quo or seizing an unlikely opportunity to get rid of both the Assad regime and Iran on its border. Three main challenges have confronted Israel since the beginning of the unrest in Syria: 1) Israel is not able to shape military and political developments there; 2) any Israeli involvement in subverting the Syrian regime is counterproductive and will provide a boost to Assad; and 3) given the Arab-Israeli conflict and Arab attitudes on this issue, Israel was constrained in playing an active role in the Syrian war. Hence, the primary bargaining chip remaining is Russia’s consent to allow Israel to display its aerial superiority over the Syrian regime and its Iranian ally.

Indeed, Israel forced its rules of engagement in Syria without deploying any troops or suffering any significant casualties. It continues to refuse to accept any limitations on its activities in Syria; hence, it will not accept any Russian offer in southwestern Syria and prefers to keep parties involved on edge. What remains an open question is how long Russia can give a green light for both Israel and Iran to remain active in Syria without clashing with one another. Neither Washington nor Tehran are ready to declare their withdrawal from Syria unless their interests are secured and until they figure out how to proceed on the nuclear deal issue. Meanwhile, both Israel and the Syrian regime seem fine with having Russia as an arbiter. The reality for Israel now is that the Syrian regime is in full control of southwestern Syria regardless of the long-term challenges and US-Russian tensions. Israel’s only bet seems to be to continue pressuring and appeasing Russia and the Assad regime, hoping they both keep their distance from Iran.

Joe Macaron is a Resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Joe and read his previous publications click here